26 View from Cautley Crag


26-alison-oneillAlison O’Neill – Farmer, Shacklabank Farm

It’s timeless is that view; absolutely bleakly beautiful. It’s the only place in the Howgill Fells where you really feel like the Ice Age made any impact, because it’s the only place where you’ve got the U-shaped valley gouged out; everywhere else is rounded and soft. It just creates this absolute drama. And it’s higher than it looks here, when you’re up there you feel like you’re on the top of the world.

It’s so special because Rough Fell sheep graze here – that’s the breed of sheep I keep. My grandfather would always say ‘there are no flowers in the Howgill Fells, but the flowers of the fellside are the sheep’. They were originally bred for wool. They’re larger sheep, long legged, with beautiful temperaments. Also my fell pony stallion came from Cautley Crag; he would have grazed on here.

At the bottom of Cautley Crag here there’s a small Temperance Inn – The Cross Keys. My grandparents lived at the foot of the Howgills and, before they were married, Granddad invited Grandma for a walk across the Howgills. So Grandma would have stood here looking at the view and thought how beautiful it was. They walked down the valley bottom here, went into The Cross Keys, had ham and eggs and he asked her to marry him.

I was born in Sedbergh at the foot of the Howgills on a family farm. When I was 16 I left home and travelled. I didn’t think I wanted anything to do with it because it was hard work. But when I was in my late 20s I suddenly wanted to return to the land, and so I came back.

I came here with £60 and nothing else; I was a month off having Scarlet, my daughter. It’s a really hard living to make. I know some people think it’s being a bit dramatic, but it is kind of tough. There have been a couple of times when I could have just given the farm up, thinking ‘this is crazy’. But it’s the life I’ve always wanted. It’s kind of like you’re born to it. I love the land, and animals, and I wanted to give Scarlet the life I had – to give her that freedom, and those choices, and to grow up in a beautiful place that’s very safe.

We thought we were doing OK, and then Foot and Mouth came and wiped everything clean, and we had no money. It was horrendous. I kind of felt that a lot of it was my fault – because I’d wanted the farm and a lot of people had said financially it wasn’t a good idea.

So then I thought – ‘what else can I do?’ I like walking and I like people, so I trained to be a walking guide. The idea was just to do a few walks from the farm – to sell the view. I won a competition with Country Living Magazine with this whole concept of a farm holiday and got some PR through that. Six months after that people came here from The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, lots of glossy magazines, and then the holidays started to sell. It went really well. Then I started getting calls from ladies who wanted to buy the clothes I was wearing in the pictures – which seemed crazy – so then I decided to make up some skirts and waistcoats using tweed. I now have a factory make them for me.

I still do the walks, and I do the tweed, and I go and give talks. I still farm – my sister and other members of the family come and help out. I have 250 of my own sheep, but I shepherd others. We call it stick and dog gathering – that’s what I do. I don’t have a quad bike; I have a fell pony and try and do it in the old fashioned way, just walking the hill looking at the sheep. Most people don’t have time for that, but it’s kind of how I was brought up.

I do talks for all kinds of groups – farmers’ groups, landowners, WI – and I have so many letters from people that say I’ve inspired them to go back to the land: to start working on the land again, to get businesses going. People think you need money but then realise it’s more about passion.

My granddad always said that what was important was having that land beneath your feet, and having a view, and knowing it was yours. Of course we never really truly own anything; it’s all kind of everybody’s. I really do live off the view though. If I didn’t have a view I wouldn’t have a business.